Friday, April 8, 2011

Unnecessary objects

Some mail-order catalogues make me feel a lot like Diogenes. He was the ancient Greek philosopher who believed that the key to happiness was to eliminate all desires, so he lived like a beggar with no belongings. According to one story, he once went walking around a country fair, looking at all the things for sale, and marveled, "How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes has no need!"

Now, I don't believe in taking simple living to the same extreme as Diogenes, but I do often see products in catalogues or on websites and wonder what kind of person would actually believe that these objects would make him happier. This is even true, more often than not, of "green" products that are aimed specifically at eco-conscious consumers. For example, yesterday I got an e-mail from Green America (an environmental and workers' rights group of which I'm a member) that offered a 25 percent discount on an assortment of "natural home products." The items featured in the e-mail were all attractive and, as far as I could tell, well-made, but I couldn't actually see myself needing any of them. They included:
  • A $30 stainless-steel compost crock. This might be useful if your compost pile is located a fair distance from the house, so that you want to collect a big batch of scraps before making the trek out there. In that case, although you could just use any old container for your kitchen waste, you'd probably prefer something that will look decent sitting out on your counter, with a nice tight-fitting lid to contain odors. But since we put our compost bin right outside the kitchen door, we can just toss the scraps right in as soon as we've finished preparing a meal—even in the middle of the winter. And if we did need a larger, sealed container, we'd probably go with an empty bucket from paint or joint compound (something we have lots of on hand) and just stash it under the sink between meals.
  • Reusable mesh bags for fruits and veggies ($5 for a set of 5), so that you don't need to take plastic bags from the grocery store for this purpose. These make sense in theory, but the thing is, a certain number of plastic bags invariably find their way into our house anyway—from bread, bagged produce, newspaper inserts—and so it makes a lot more sense to reuse these than to buy special, reusable bags and throw the plastic ones away.
  • Bamboo-handled, stainless-steel kitchen tools, including a pizza wheel, bottle opener, and spaghetti server ($5 to $7). We already have one of each of these, so I don't really see how it's green to discard a perfectly good tool and replace it with a new one just because it has a bamboo handle. Not to mention that it's perfectly possible to slice pizza with a knife, open bottles with a fork, and serve spaghetti with two forks.
  • A $5 bamboo "trivet" (which isn't technically a trivet, because it doesn't have any feet; it's simply a table protector). We already have several table protectors that we've received as gifts, but if we didn't, we could put hot dishes down on top of a potholder, a placemat, or a napkin—or just leave them on the stove and serve ourselves from there.
How many "green" things there are in the world of which an ecofrugal person, with just a little bit of imagination, has no need!
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